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Free College Education Will Worsen the Already Extreme Labor Shortage

Let's investigate the costs of "free" college education with a look at demographics and incentives to not work.
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Population Change in Last 5, 10, 15 Years

Population Change in Last 5, 10, 15 Years 2021-09

Population Change Details 

  • In the last 5 years, the total noninstitutional population age 16 and over rose by 7.68 million. 
  • The population change of those aged 65 and older rose by 8.24 million, over 100% of the total increase.
  • The population change of those aged 60-64 rose by 1.39 million
  • The 60+ total is 9.63 million.
  • The population of the prime-age workers, those aged 25-54 rose by a mere 219,000.

Civilian Noninstitutional Population by Age 

Civilian Noninstitutional Population by Age 2021-09

The above chart highlights the trend. All of the population growth and then some has been in those age 65 and older.

A look at labor force participation rates, shows why this is a serious problem.

The labor force participation rate is the percentage of the working-age population,  age 16 or older, in the labor force. 

The labor force is the number of people working or actively seeking work.

Labor Force Participation Rates

Labor Force Participatio Rates 2021-09

Current Participation Rates by Age Group

  • Total 16+ SA: 61.6%
  • 16-19 SA: 36.3%
  • 20-24 SA: 70.6%
  • 25-54 SA: 81.6%
  • 55-59 NSA: 73.2%
  • 60-64 NSA: 57.0%
  • 65+ NSA: 19.2%

I used seasonally-adjusted numbers when available. The BLS does not have seasonally-adjusted data for all age groups. Seasonal adjustments matter most for those in school. 

Key Details

  • Retirement Age: There is a rapid decline in the participation rate at age 60 from 73.2% to 57.0%, then an even steeper decline from 57.0% to 19.2% at age 65 when most people retire.
  • High School Age: The participation rate of those aged 16-19, largely those in high school, was on a steady decline from 51.6% in 2000 to the 34.1% bottom in 2010. Since then,the participation rate has risen to 36.3%. That beats the February 2020 pre-pandemic rate of 36.2%.
  • College Age: The participation rate of those aged 20-24, largely those in college, had a pre-pandemic bottom at 69.7% in January of 2016. In February of 2020 the participation rate rose to 72.8%. It's now at 70.6%, down 1.9 percentage points.
  • Overall: There has been a steady decline in the overall participation rate from 66.9% in September of 2000 to 61.6% in September of 2021.

Unlike the High School participation rate, the College-Age rate never recovered. 


  1. This age group easily made more in unemployment benefits than they made working.
  2. Many saved that money and feel no strong pressure to work even as benefits expired.
  3. Others moved back home and feel little pressure to work. 
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Age 20-24 is a largely unskilled age group. They did not lose jobs due to lack of skills. 

The unmistakable conclusion is that the participation rate decline in this age group is voluntary. Moreover, voluntary unemployment does not stop with those aged 20-24.

Unemployment Levels in Thousands

Unemployment Levels in Thousands 2021-09

Leisure and Hospitality and retail trade are primarily unskilled jobs. Self-employed individuals may or may not have a skill, but the unemployed in this group are not highly skilled on average.

Yet, millions of jobs are available and go unfilled. 

This is largely voluntary.Those who saved their pandemic benefits just might take a lot longer to look for a job. 

That's the huge flaw in analysis that supposedly shows little improvement between states ending benefits early and those who didn't. It will take time to sort this out.

What About Free College?

The Wall Street Journal notes nearly six million students, about 1 in 4 in higher education, attend public two-year colleges.

Also, forty-seven percent of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 have an associate degree or higher, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That's a big pool eligible people who may go back to college.

The alleged cost of the program is only $256 billion. Please! It will never stop there.

And what about the increased propensity of those getting free tuition to stop looking for work? 

Millions of Unfilled Jobs

There are millions of leisure and hospitality jobs available and millions more retail jobs available perfectly suited for those in college. 

But college-age kids and other unskilled labor did not return to work because they made more being unemployed. 

The Biden administration now wants yet another free money proposal that provides  a huge incentive to not work

Free College Isn't Free

Add it all up and free college is hugely inflationary. 

The problems go well beyond the stated costs into a severe exacerbation of a labor shortage already compounded by other free money handouts and boomers retiring en masse.